Someone pointed out that I switched Nicole’s roommate from Monica to Miranda. My mistake! I know one of each in real life, can’t keep my brain on straight.
Nicole was ringing up a customer when the door opened. She didn’t see their faces as they headed for the far side of the store, but heard the rolling thump of what she assumed was a baby carriage. It made her think of the last time a stroller had been in that room, the day she met Viktor. She had to count the customer’s change twice.
“Let me know if I can help you,” she called to the new shoppers.
“Actually you can.” Abby came around the corner and Nicole’s heart skipped a beat.
Same stroller, no big deal. Must be a million rich moms in Chicago, Nicole thought. Abby wheeled right up to the counter, pushing just far enough so Nicole could see inside. Pink hat, white blanket... big, smiley baby face.
Nicole did a double-take. Well this is weird.
Abby Sharp looked like Nicole though Patrick Sharp’s wife should look - very pretty in an adorable, friendly kind of way, not the over-processed trophy wife look. Patrick was glam enough for both of them. She was casually wearing some very expensive clothes and a diamond that could have drilled to the Earth’s core.
Say something? Don’t say something? Nicole quickly decided that unless Abby introduced herself as Mrs. Patrick Sharp, she wouldn’t say anything. If she ever met the woman again with Viktor, its unlikely Abby would remember some girl from a stationary shop. Plus Nicole wasn’t sure what to say.
I’m dating Viktor? Seeing him? He used your baby to pick up girls, and all he got was me?
“Did you made the Blackhawks window display?” Abby asked. The girl behind the counter was very cute, but when she smiled at the question she went from a seven to a nine. Dimples and a beauty mark near her mouth that got lost when she grinned. Her stick-straight brown hair was extra shiny.
“Yeah, I did. It’s a little... unusual for Valentine’s Day.”
“Or when they’re losing so much,” Abby said.
Nicole shrugged. “I think that’s when they need it most.”
The second shopper made her way to the counter, holding two greeting cards. She was very pretty, with alabaster skin and very dark hair, like a modern version of Snow White. Her winter coat and jeans were a little less flashy.
“They sure do,” Fiona said in a surprisingly lyrical accent.
“Are you a big fan?” Abby asked.
Nicole nodded. This was where things got weird. She wouldn’t mention her fledgling relationship with Viktor to just anyone, lest it seem like she were bragging. But it would be obvious the moment she knew who this woman was that she’d have to say something. And what if Mrs. Sharp had never heard of her? What if Viktor hadn’t said anything, or worse, didn’t want to?
“We are planning a watch party for the game on Thursday, at a bar. We saw your display and wanted to invite you. It’s a... family affair, I guess. I’m Abby, Patrick Sharp’s wife. This is Fiona, she’s... a friend of the team too.”
Nicole tried to look surprised. “That’s so funny. I’m Nicole. And I’m, uh, seeing Viktor. Stalberg.”
Abby’s mouth dropped open an inch, very unladylike. Fiona’s eyes darted back to Nicole’s face and froze there. The moment got long, stretching into something almost awkward. Nicole instantly regretted saying anything - why were they being so quiet? Did Viktor have another girlfriend, someone they knew? Was he publicly dating someone else? Or had he said something about her they didn’t like?
“Wuh... wow. Hi!” Abby snapped out of it first. “You’re Nicole. The girl from the coffee shop! You were at the game the other night, the home game!”
She became increasingly more animated. “So I guess you know this little bundle?”
Nicole blushed, nodding. “We have met. Hi Maddy.”
The baby started back, just as surprised as everyone else.
“Wow!” Abby said again, glancing at her friend who still hasn’t said anything. “What a coincidence. Well I’m glad we came in, you have to come to the party. Some of the other wives and girlfriends are coming, and you can meet every....”
“Oh, thanks, but, I’m not sure we’re that serious. I mean, we just met and I don’t want to give people the idea that... I, I’d rather wait, maybe. Till he’s back.” Nicole was stammering. She definitely didn’t want to parade around the players significant others like she’d earned a spot there. Something major was definitely happening with Viktor but there was no label for it yet. It would be presumptuous to go without him. Sure he’d brought a few of his teammates on their date, but locker room talk was something else.
“Nonsense. He’d want you to come. I’ll talk to him,” Abby reached for a pen on the counter and flipped over a flyer for the store’s events. “Here’s the bar. Just come a little early, so you can meet everyone.”
Abby slid the paper across the counter, tucking it under Nicole’s fingers. Nicole just nodded as she felt the blood draining from her face. The other woman, Fiona, gave her a tentative smile that Nicole had the distinct impression she didn’t mean. Something in her expression seemed caught off guard.
“So we’ll see you Thursday, okay? It was nice to meet you, Nicole.”
“You too,” Nicole managed as they both followed the stroller out of the store.
Fiona waited until they were half a block away, just in case. Abby had her lips pressed together like she knew better than to speak first.
“Viktor is seeing someone? You didn’t tell me!”
Abby shrugged. “I know, I wasn’t sure if it was cool. You were so gung-ho about him taking Maddy out and you seemed fine with it, but he met her that first day. Didn’t take him long, you know?”
Fiona remembered back to telling Jon she’d helped Viktor pick up girls. It seemed her idea had worked better than she knew. Jon had told her Viktor didn’t need any help. He’d been right. Still, it was a little fast. Except that it wasn’t, not at all. For everything that had happened between them - some really good times, one really great night, Jon jumping Viktor at practice... it felt like the whole saga had taken ages to play out. But as it ended with Fiona telling Viktor that she’d chosen Jon, Viktor had reminded her it had only been two weeks.
Since then, two months had passed.
“She seems nice,” Fiona said. “Normal.”
Abby steered them around a corner. “She seems like Viktor.”
Nicole typed a message into her phone, deleted it and typed it again in other words. She wanted the news to come from her, in case it was no big deal. Or in case it was.
Abby Sharp just came into the store. I told her about us seeing each other. I hope that’s okay. Maddy was with her, I felt weird not mentioning it.
Two minutes later, her phone rang.
“Hey,” Viktor said. “You met Abby? That’s great! She was dying over that date when Seabs, Kaner and Keith came. Sharpie wouldn’t come because Abby would have hounded him to death for details.”
And he was laughing. Just like that - wiped away. Nothing to worry about.
“Yeah, she seemed nice.”
“She’s awesome. After all, who lends out their babies to hopeless lonely guys?”
Nicole’s stomach did a little flip. How could he be so perfect? More than anything right then, she wanted to kiss those curvy lips he was always smiling with. “Yeah. Hopeless. That’s you.”
“So are you guys gonna hang out? I bet she’s pretty bummed with this losing streak too.”
“Well, they’re having a party at a bar. To watch the game. I guess all the wives and girlfriends are going to be there, and I’m invited.” Nicole clipped off the end of the last word, wanting silence so she could hear Viktor’s reaction even if he didn’t say the first thing that popped into his mind.
“Nice! That’s sweet, they’re having a party. You should bring Monica, if she promises not to tell Keith stories. A couple of the other girls have a thing for him, even if they’re married.”
“So it’s okay? I didn’t want to just start telling people we’re seeing each other, without you. I could be making it up for all they know.”
Viktor laughed again. “Nic, if you were going to make it up, you’d go for Kaner. Probably be three girls there with that story anyway. Where’s the party?”
Nicole read off the slip Abby had written. She wasn’t familiar with the place, but it wasn’t far away.
She froze. There had to be something - she knew it! - and now Viktor’s tone was different.
“I should have guessed.”
“Why?” she asked tentatively.
“That’s, uh... that’s Fiona’s bar. She’s Tazer’s girlfriend.”
Nicole thought a bunch of things at once. Jonathan Toews has a girlfriend? Who owns a bar? And why does it matter that’s where the party is?
“Wait, did you say Fiona? Dark hair, pale skin, Irish? She was here, with Abby. I met her.”
Viktor was silent.
“What?” Nicole asked.
Viktor cleared his throat. “I, uh... remember when I said I just got out of something? It wasn’t serious but it didn’t go my way?”
“It was Fiona. But Jon had been into her for a long time and she chose him.”
Not quite the whole truth, and Viktor knew it. The more sordid details were ugly and he didn’t know how to explain them. How could he tell Nicole that he didn’t sleep with her because he had slept with Fiona? He couldn’t say that his one night with Fiona had been fantastic but still just one night. It felt so right - though painful - to wait with Nicole. But was he protecting her from a one night stand, or protecting himself?
“Oh.” Nicole felt a warmth spread through her chest, like an egg breaking. It felt thick and slow, spreading through her. Bad news. Not personally, but that someone had hurt Viktor and neither of them could stop it. Fiona had given her a strange, almost stricken look when she introduced herself in relation to Viktor. No wonder.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, surprised that the news made her depressed. Of course he’d had other girlfriends, look at him! Since he was single now they had obviously not panned out. Still it was almost impossible to believe someone wouldn’t choose Viktor. Even for Jonathan Toews. But if you were ever going to face that question...
Jeez. Sophie’s choice, she thought. And I was wearing that Toews shirt the day we met. God, I’m a jerk.
“I’m not sorry, Nicole. Neither are they. They’re good for each other. And I met you.”
Easy for him to say, he didn’t see the look on her face.
“Please tell me you’ll go to the party,” he said.
She made a face he couldn’t see. “Okay, I’ll go. For you.”
“I owe you one.”
Nicole blushed even as she said it. “I’ll remember that.”
Fiona put down the wooden spoon, careful not to get spaghetti sauce all over the stove, and reached for her ringing phone.
“Hey,” she said a little hesitantly.
Things had been strained between her and Viktor since she chose to be with Jon. Correction, since she slept with Viktor and then still chose to be with Jon. In hindsight, Jon was the right choice. But the more time passed the more Fiona thought other choices could have been smarter.
“Hi, Fi.” Viktor said. “I heard you met Nicole today.”
Fiona exhaled slowly. The girl from the stationary store had put two and two together and come up with her odd threesome and the way it had broken out.
“I’m sorry, I was a bit weird about it. Just surprised is all. She’s very pretty and she seems quite nice.”
“She’s nice. And I’m making her go to your party. Can you introduce her around? She doesn’t want to say she’s with me, thinks it looks like she’s bragging. Or crazy.” Viktor wanted Nicole to be confident, not nervous, in meeting more of his circle of friends. Fiona was a strange ally, but perfectly suited for the job. “I told her about us, and about Jon.”
Fiona wasn’t surprised, just relieved. If Nicole felt awkward introducing herself in the store as Viktor’s girl, what the hell was Fiona to say at the party? Because everyone there already knew her little secret.
“Yeah, I’ll make sure she has fun. I’m... happy for you, you know that, right? I meant for you to find someone great.”
Viktor smiled, but not at the compliment. Not about Fiona at all. He was thinking of Nicole.
“I think I have.”
Monica marched ahead and held the door to the bar open for Nicole, waving her in almost impatiently. She had the feeling her roommate was going to change her mind and make a run for it.
Quite a few people were clustered around the middle of the dining area, with the best view of the many TVs that were all turned to the Blackhawks pre-game with the volume on. Bar food and a few extra treats had been laid out on some of the tables. It was mostly women with a few guys mixed in - friends, maybe, or the boyfriend of someone’s sister. Nicole quickly panned the crowd, looking for Abby Sharp. She wanted to make that connection first and establish herself a little before running into Fiona.
Nicole was no fool. Of course Viktor had old girlfriends. But this one was very fresh and Nicole suspected she might not have gotten the entire story. Private details were private, she was okay with that. But she needed to feel a little steady before accepting that this former flame would be part of his - and her own - life if things continued to go right.
No such luck.
“Hey,” Fiona slipped a platter of chips and salsa onto a table with the practiced ease of a waitress. “Nicole, I’m glad you came.”
The dark-haired Irish girl was definitely pretty, now that Nicole was looking at her through the hot-enough-for-Jonathan-Toews lens. She also had a sense of strength around her, like she wasn’t a fembot or an airhead.
Maybe I could like her, Nicole considered with a small measure of pride.
Fiona smiled with extra-warmth, imagining herself in Nicole’s shoes. Any girl - including herself - would be luck to say they were with Viktor Stalberg. She’d always thought that. introduced her roommate Monica, and Fiona immediately knew that Nicole hadn’t shared the story of Viktor’s past relationship with her friend.
“Come meet some of the girls,” Fiona leaned in conspiratorially and lowered her voice. “And don’t mind that some of them are wearing couture to a bar party. You’ll get used to it.”
Nicole was nicely dressed in a cranberry-colored cardigan and jeans with boots, along the lines of Fiona’s long-sleeved white shirt and slacks. The rest of the women were dressed like Abby had been when she came in the shop - similar style, much higher price tag. She saw high heels and Prada purses were de rigeur as she apprached the spread of tables. Instead of announcing her to the group, Fiona led her first to where Abby was talking with another woman.
“Nicole, nice to see you!” Abby squeezed the younger girls’ arm. “This is Julia, Dave Bolland’s wife.”
If Nicole had to guess which player the pint-sized, very blond and completely stunning woman before here were married to, well she would have struggled. Sharp, Toews and Stalberg were spoken for. The Blackhawks were an exceptionally good-looking team, but Bolland had not been the answer she was expecting.
Good for you, buddy! she thought while trying not to laugh out loud.
“Julia, this is Nicole. She’s just started dating Viktor.” Abby explained.
They all watched as Julia’s eyes cut immediately to Fiona, just for a second, before coming back to Nicole. She already had a smile on, gushing pleasantries. Nicole kept any kind of reaction off her face and introduced Monica to both women. A moment later, a fine-featured dark hair woman with an accent joined them - Marion Hossa’s wife Janka. Fiona graciously did the formalities and they all again pretended not to notice the glance toward Fiona at the mention of Viktor’s name. Nicole rolled her shoulders back and kept going till they’d met twenty new people.
“Wow there is a lot of Chanel in this room,” Monica whispered as they went to the bar. “I feel like I should order a white wine spritzer.”
Nicole slapped her roommate’s arm. “They’re nice. But try to watch your mouth during the game.”
Monica grinned hugely. “You mean stifle the urge to yell, ‘I slept with Duncan Keith’ at the top of my lungs? Because I want to. And if he scores I just might.”
Nicole asked for two beers. “You never know, he might have slept with someone else here.”
Monica took a pint from the bartender, raised her glass and didn’t say a word.
By the second intermission, the tables in their section were clear. Nothing was left of the bar food or the baked goods, and Nicole doubted these women in their size zero pants had ever consumed so much.
Stress eating, she knew.
The Hawks were losing - again. It was a better game, a closer game, but they were still down two and it seemed like a mountain to climb. Casual bar customers who had started watching the game were leaving. None of the wives moved as the buzzer sounded, except Fiona.
“Another round, for everyone,” she told the two girls behind the bar. “Jon’s paying.”
That got a laugh. Frustrated snippets of conversation gained volume and switched away from the game. Abby slipped into a chair between Nicole and Monica just as Fiona appeared at their side.
“Nicole, would you give me a hand with these drinks?”
Here goes, Nicole thought. She’d sensed all game that Fiona wanted to speak to her privately, but there was no way to do it until now. The bartenders hadn’t bothered with trays, just lined up glasses and the girls stood waiting for them to be filled.
“Are you having fun?” Fiona asked.
“I am. Wish they were winning.”
Fiona sighed. “It feels a little like it’s your fault, yeah? When they lose?”
“I guess. It’s pretty new for me.”
“You get used to it, a little. This lot at least,” Fiona gestured toward the women. “Not the players though. Not Jon.”
Nicole knew this was the time to say something comforting, but she didn’t know Jonathan Toews. And she had no idea what Viktor would be like in person after a loss, forget six bad road losses in a row. Completely unprepared, that was the only way Nicole felt. And she wasn’t used it to at all.
“I’m sorry about before,” Fiona said suddenly.
Fiona stopped herself and regarded Nicole carefully. Nicole was definitely aware this girl was no fool, but something wasn’t right. Finally Fiona chose her words carefully.
“You’ll learn that word gets around really fast here. Everyone knows everything.”
Nicole just lifted her eyebrows, as if to say she was waiting for the punchline.
“Viktor told you about me,” Fiona said.
It wasn’t a question, but Nicole said yes anyway. Fiona sighed.
“Did he tell you we slept together?”
“No.” The word was out before Nicole could stop it. Not that she would have lied, but the single word seemed really revealing.
“Fuck.” The sound was surprisingly vulgar in Fiona’s delicate accent. “Well he shouldn’t. But boys are so dumb. It... happened. And people know. That’s why they were surprised. Not that Viktor would be with you - they wanted to see if I was upset. That’s why I wanted to introduce you, so there would be no question.”
Fiona pushed her hair back from her face. “People here will like you, Nicole. And they gossip. You’ll hear all sorts of shit about me.”
Fiona paused and Nicole did not rush her. Nor did she look back at the room full of women in question who were undoubtedly watching from a corner of their eyes and gossiping right now.
“Most of it’s true.”
Nicole focused again and found Fiona looking right back at her. “You don’t need to explain....”
“I do,” Fiona tipped her head toward the waiting crowd. “Because they already know. Viktor is a gentleman - he’s amazing, really, Nicole. But it’s not fair if you’re the only one who doesn’t know.
“I got really messed up because of Jon. I thought I liked Viktor, but I had been in love with Jon for a long time without ever being honest. We are so far from perfect it’s crazy. And Viktor is all perfect, all the damned time,” she smiled weakly. “You’ve probably figured that out already.”
Nicole’s heart was pounding, half from fear and half from the idea someone else expected her to be around long enough to need this information. “Yeah. He’s pretty intimidating, really.”
“I know!” Fiona laughed and Nicole felt the shell of her discomfort fall away. She hadn’t been reading Viktor wrong. Other people saw him the same way. Even someone who’d been closer - much closer - than she had. The person who’d hurt him had hurt herself in the process.
“I’m sorry about all that, Nicole. To Viktor and to you for having to come after. But I’m happy with Jon and Viktor - he called me today to ask me to look out for you. Me, of all people! I could hear in his voice that he really likes you. I won’t let these bitches get in the way of that.”
Nicole did something she couldn’t have fathomed a few hours ago. She hugged Fiona. Pulled her right in and squeezed her hard. Fiona hugged back, shoulders sagging.
“You proved me right,” Fiona said. “You’re better for him.”
The tension had eased so much Nicole felt okay joking. “Is this the part where you tell me that if I hurt him, you’ll kill me?”
Fiona cracked a huge smile. “Absolutely. Dead.”
It was the last smile of the night. The Blackhawks lost their sixth straight road game. To their credit, every single wife or girlfriend stayed until the bitter end. Nicole noticed that a few looked antsy or bored, but wouldn’t be the first to go. She and Monica had a few beers and didn’t say much as the game wore on.
At the final horn, half the women sprinted for the door. Monica had sunk so low into her seat she had to dislodge herself to help collect empty glasses. Nicole stacked some plates, adding them to a pile Abby was making.
“Don’t wait for him to call,” Abby said without looking up. “Not tonight.”
Viktor put his head back against the seat. He was first onto the bus, looking for a moment of real quiet before the stunned silence of the team heading for the airport after the worst possible outcome. He considered calling Nicole, but had only one thing to ask her.
The idea of her warm, mostly naked body in his arms, sleeping perfectly, had been haunting him for two weeks. As the Hawks spirits fell, thinking of Nicole was one of the few bright spots that Viktor could muster. It started out equal parts lust and caring. After so many losses, it had become something more sad, more sympathetic.
He was thinking it might be too much when the phone rang in his pocket.
That’s a sign, he smiled despite the misery.
“Hey,” she said quietly.
Viktor gave up. “Can I ask you for a big favor?”
“Be in my bed when I get there.”
Nicole blushed so hard she was sure he could feel it thousands of miles away. The fatigue and defeat in his voice weighed on her chest and curled her shoulders. He sounded so tired, so beaten. Whatever she felt watching them lose was a hundred times worse for him. His request wasn’t surprising, but it was surprisingly needful.
“I can call my doorman to let you in,” he continued. “If it’s okay. I just... I want to see you. And I want to sleep for a week.”
“Of course,” she didn’t even have to think. “I miss you.”
That made him smile. “Not for long.”
The flight to Chicago seemed endless. Viktor tried to sleep but the promise of comfort and company at home made the in-flight situation distracting. Some of the guys would have wives or girlfriends waiting for them at the airport, even in the dead of night. Maybe someday Nicole would be there to greet him. Right now he’d rather think of her fast asleep in his sheets.
He zipped through the empty streets and nodded a thanks for the doorman on duty. Surely it wasn’t the first time that man had let a beautiful young woman into someone’s apartment. Viktor didn’t wait for the elevator, but used the very last ounce of his energy to climb the stairs.
He left his suitcase in the living room without breaking stride. Viktor went right to the bedroom. The door was open a crack and he was careful to be quiet. Nicole was nothing more than a lump under the comforter, only an arm and the fan of her hair visible as she lay on her side, breathing silently.
Viktor sighed. His body weighed a thousand pounds, heavy enough to melt into a puddle on the floor. But he pushed himself through the last few steps - suit over the back of a chair, watch and wallet on the dresser. The clock said 3:21 AM. He stripped down to his shorts, thanked God he had brushed his teeth before leaving the rink because he wasn’t sure he could do it now. Then he slipped between the soft sheets and right up against Nicole’s back. She shifted as he wrapped an arm around the waist and kissed just above the neck of her t-shirt. Bending his knees up under hers like a spoon, he almost groaned. She wore panties, nothing else.
Deep breath. All he got was the scent of her hair.
“Night baby,” he whispered, finally closing his eyes.